Nurses cry foul over working conditions at Sparrow Hospital

Pontifex: Morale among nurses reaches all-time low ahead of union picket

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Katie Pontifex has never seen morale so low among nurses at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing.

And as the president of the Professional Employee Council, which represents about 2,200 employees at the hospital on Michigan Avenue, Pontifex knows that those broken spirits can often lead to more dire consequences — including concerns over decreased safety for patients.

“We’re fighting for not only a safe environment for ourselves, but for our patients as well,” Pontifex told City Pulse. “We simply don’t have enough staff at the hospital, in our opinion, to give the care that we want to give. Our nurse-to-patient ratios are becoming a problem, and that can be unsafe — not just for the nurses, but for the patients they treat too. We’re not the only ones who are suffering from short staffing, and it all comes down to recruitment and retention.”

Pontifex expects up to 700 people to crowd the sidewalks near the hospital this evening for an “informational picket” while the union continues to bargain with administrators for a “fair” contract — one that she hopes provides more consistent wage increases for employees, adequate and affordable healthcare coverage and can help bolster a dwindling number of staff.

The union’s existing collective bargaining agreement expired over the weekend, and both sides aren’t set to head back to the negotiating table until Tuesday (Nov. 9). And so far, Pontifex said that top hospital administrators have refused to follow existing contract language regarding “safe staffing” levels, raised healthcare costs for individual employees and fell short on proposed wage increases. She hopes that this week’s demonstration sends a clear message to Sparrow:

“Morale is very low. In 10 years, I’ve never seen it this low,” Pontifex said. “We have people leaving like crazy. Some people are leaving the profession altogether. There are people leaving bedside positions because, physically or mentally, they just cannot handle it anymore. We’re constantly being told to do more with less, and it’s time for a change. We need more support.”

Reports in the Detroit Free Press noted that every room in Sparrow’s emergency department was full last month, leaving some patients lining the hallways to await treatment. Some sick patients have also reportedly waited hours, even days, for a bed to open inside the hospital.

Pontifex said that most nurses, depending on their assignments, should be tasked with overseeing treatment for three or four patients. Over the last several months, that ratio has steadily increased, with some nurses being stretched to cover up to a dozen patients each.

As a result, some ill patients have been left waiting — sometimes for up to an hour — for something as simple as help using the restroom, Pontifex explained. In-room meals can also take up to four hours to arrive after they’ve been ordered. DoorDash is often a speedier delivery.

“We have some patients who can’t get up by themselves, so if they attempt to get out of bed while they’re waiting for help, they could fall and injure themselves,” Pontifex added. “Maybe they soil themselves and then they have to lie in it. That can cause skin breakdown. None of that is intentional by the staff, but when we’re caring for eight to 10 patients a piece, we’re really not spending a lot of time with them. Again, this all boils down to recruitment and retention.”

The stress of working with a shoestring staff pushed one nurse to leave the hospital this year for a job at a local BBQ joint, Pontifex said. Plenty of others have also left for other hospitals.

Union officials are pushing for wage increases that are more consistent with the cost of living, which could incentivize more people to apply and encourage its long-time staff to stick around.

Pontifex said her bargaining team “asked for the moon” with a 10% wage increase this year; the administration reportedly upped its 1% counterproposal with a proposed 4% increase on Friday.

Another key item under negotiation: A proposed 12% increase for staff healthcare premiums, which Pontifex said could lead to some nurses being forced to pay an extra $140 per month.

“We cannot provide healthcare unless we receive it first, and the wage increases aren’t consistent with the proposed healthcare increases,” Pontifex said. “We want a wage that’s consistent with cost-of-living adjustments — nothing exorbitant. It’s a reasonable request. They offered six feet below the ground. We asked for the moon. We need to meet in the middle here.”

Union officials said that Sparrow received $106 million in pandemic-related funding from the federal government over the last two years, which is only further compounding staff frustrations. That surplus of grant cash should also trickle down to frontliners in the form of higher wage increases and retention bonuses, Pontifex argued. Instead, she said the nurses only got donuts.

Added Jennifer Ackley, a nurse who works in the emergency department: “I am exhausted. I am frustrated. I am tired of being asked to keep doing more with less. We need safe staffing. We need to recruit and retain nurses and other caregivers. We need to be heard. Sparrow executives cannot keep trying to use the pandemic as an excuse not to do the right thing.”

Sparrow Hospital administrators have not responded to requests for comment from City Pulse while the contract negotiations continue. Pontifex said she wasn’t surprised, noting that hashing out this latest contract has proved to be much more challenging than the last one from 2017.

Shortly after contract negotiations began in September, Sparrow Hospital hired Barnes and Thornburg, a law firm that specializes in “union avoidance,” according to its website. The union has since labeled that move as an “aggressively anti-union approach” to contract negotiations.

“I’ve had to make sure that our people are remaining calm. They’re ready to let Sparrow know where we stand. We would’ve given anything to cancel this picket and reach an agreement. We could’ve called it off in a heartbeat, but they didn’t give us any scheduled dates,” Pontifex said. “We certainly hope people turn out in force this week so they know we have the community standing alongside us. Hopefully that moves them and they see it’s time to take us seriously.”

This week’s picket isn’t a work stoppage, but it could develop into a full-blown strike if a new contract isn’t settled. Employees are still “prepared to do whatever it takes,” Pontifex warned. 

Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued coverage as the contract negotiations continue.

Editor’s note:

If you’re wondering why Sparrow Hospital is underrepresented in this story, it is because, as the story reports, Sparrow did not respond to a request to discuss the issues. This is not new: It started three years ago when City Pulse reported accreditation problems that the hospital was facing. Sparrow’s immediate reaction was to throw out all copies of City Pulse that week from the hospital and the Michigan Athletic Club, which it owns. Its long-term strategy seems to be just to ignore us, despite being a disservice to our readers and the community. We will continue to seek Sparrow’s side in stories.

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